By: Dr. Chip Hardy
Have you ever thought upon the negativity of the Ten Commandments? I am not talking about the disapproval in the media or courts toward this ancient law code, which is sometimes called the Decalogue (Greek for “Ten Words”). Rather, have you ever thought about the way that each command is formulated in the negative? Eight instructions out of the ten say do not do something. Do not have other gods besides Me. Do not make an idol for yourself. Do not misuse the name of Yahweh your God. In contrast, only two are stated positively. Keep the Sabbath. Honor your father and mother.
So what is the point of the negative commands?
The negativity of the Decalogue drives us to focus our attention outside of ourselves and toward loving others by reorienting our expectations and our concern for protecting the rights of others.
To understand this better, perhaps we should consider the purpose of these famed ten standards. Some may suggest that these commandments are a declaration of personal liberties. Yet we are accustomed to freedoms being positive statements. Think about the Bill of Rights. You have the right to assemble peacefully. You have the right to keep and bear arms. You have the right to a speedy and public trial. Even the negative ones are restrictions on the government, not the individual. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The intent is to protect one’s own status and personal freedom. Citizenship requires that you stand up for your rights and protect yourself against external threat from others or the government itself.
Now the Ten Commandments have inverted this Bill of Rights guarantee of personal liberties.
The negative formulations in the Decalogue present something unmistakably different—their orientation is not internal but external. The purpose is not first to protect yourself and your rights from the tyranny of government but to consider the value of others and guard their freedoms. In other words, the highest duty of the individual is to defend the rights of others. This aspect is not merely semantics. It points to the heart of the Biblical commandments as a whole. That is, believers should place others above themselves in every aspect of their lives. The genius of Jesus’ answer to what is the greatest commandment is that he uncovers this overlooked truth. He says the Law of Moses is ultimately about loving others, namely, God and your neighbor (Matthew 22:37).
Many have sought to divide the commandments into two categories: those centered on God and those centered on others. Love God and love your neighbor. This impulse is a helpful one. Let us take this idea one step further. What would the commandments be if we were to propose positive statements of the ten principles? We might find something like the following:
Love God through recognizing that:
(1) He has the right to exclusive allegiance;
(2) He has the right to define his own image;
(3) He has the right to reverence; and
(4a) He has the right to our time and agenda (Exodus 20:8-11).
Love your neighbor through recognizing that:
(4b) Others have the right to humane employment (Deuteronomy 5:12-15);
(5) Others have the right to parental respect;
(6) Others have the right to life;
(7) Others have the right to marital purity;
(8) Others have the right to personal property;
(9) Others have the right to true reputation; and
(10) Others have the right to security.
Thinking about the rights of others and our obligation to protect them has a way of transforming a stone document into a powerful statement of others-centered religion.
Ultimately, we realize that whether stated positively or negatively these instructions reveal a disturbing reality. We find that our hearts are not interested in preserving the rights of others but long to justify our own actions. Think honestly about your recent efforts to ensure the rights of others (take your pick from those listed above) as compared with the time you have spent on ensuring your rights were respected in your last argument with your spouse, parent, child, colleague, roommate, or friend. What about that strong stand you took on “principle” in the last church business meeting? Was it more about protecting the name of Jesus from shame, making sure that the church was dealing uprightly with her finances, or merely about getting your personal preference?
What we find—if we can be truthful with ourselves—is that our own hearts do not have the power to protect others. So how can we fulfill this most important list of “nots”?
The simple answer is: We can’t. But rather, our “not” must become God’s naught. That is to say, our inability to do these commands must be superseded by God becoming naught and accomplishing them on our behalf. This process is so much more than just not doing something, which is merely fulfilling a religious duty. It is about seeing the model of how God works. He is truly others-oriented, securing our reward even to his great harm.
He became nothing to provide for our status, our rights. In order to ensure our freedom, Jesus endured the cross, death, and separation from the Father. Because God’s Son was cut off, we who believe have been given the right to become children of God! In the Incarnation, his rights were forfeited. Because he took seriously the rights of others, he realized your true value as God’s created image. The negative requirements on you have been overwhelmed by the sacrifice of the Savior. Our status has been made sure on account of his rights being set aside.
How much more—as those imbued with this new life, called to serve as he served, and given the freedom of full acceptance as God’s children—should you turn your attention away from demanding your own rights and look to the great worth of your neighbor? In Christ Jesus becoming naught, you have the power of “not”. Here only is where you find the ability to truly love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself.